This was not for me, though; this was for my kid. There was no opting out.
Confrontation is hard for me. I’ll be 37 next week, and to this day whenever I have to confront anyone about anything, I short-circuit. My entire body trembles and my voice shakes. Sometimes I even cry, and there’s nothing I can do about it. Especially when the stakes are high — when I’m speaking from strong convictions or on behalf of someone else.
As such, I tend to resist confrontation at all costs. I’ve sacrificed a lot to this avoidance, from good ideas for which I didn’t advocate strongly enough to my entire stock of self-worth.
Yet there I was, staring down a minefield. I didn’t know what might happen, but I suspected nothing good. Every instinct told me to just leave it alone. It would be much more comfortable that way.
This was not for me, though; this was for my kid. There was no opting out.
“She’s right over there,” said Amy, one of the other moms. We were at a baseball game, sitting in the mid-day sun, watching our children play.
I sighed. “I should go talk to her, then, probably, shouldn’t I, I guess?”
I sighed again. Even my words were stalling.
I stood up from the bleachers and set my shoulders. “I should.”
But I didn’t want to.
Hands already shaking, I started walking toward the mother of the girl who had been bullying my second grader. I was halfway to her when another woman walked over and they engaged in a conversation. I wouldn’t want to interrupt them, I thought. I’m ashamed to say my relief at the prospect of not having to confront her was in near-equal balance with the drive to protect my little girl.
There I stood in limbo, midway between my child down on the field and the mother of her bully at the top of the hill, waiting for some invisible force to propel me in one direction or the other.
It was a foggy day for me. I hadn’t eaten since breakfast, and there was nothing to eat at the park. I’d been on kid duty all day. We’d been outside at baseball games for hours, and I was pretty sure I would have a nice sunburn the next day.
I was at my wit’s end with my daughter. She hadn’t wanted to come to the game in the first place, and she had come over to me at least twice per inning to let me know exactly how miserable she was.
The kid must have either lost sight of me or decided she’d have better luck with a different parent because she walked over to my husband on the bleachers to whine at him for a change.
After a moment, he looked up and beckoned to me. I huffed and puffed my way over there, muttering under my breath. I had already opened my mouth to lay into both of them when I saw that my daughter was not whining, but I-am-hurting-for-real crying.
“Lizzy hit me with her helmet!” she said. “I wasn’t even doing anything, and she yelled at me, ‘STOP!’” She said this last with a sour tone that would be easily recognizable to anyone who’s ever heard two kids fighting. It’s a tone that makes my skin crawl.
It’s true my kid hadn’t been doing anything — anything other than pouting in the corner, that is.
Typically, my response when a kid is rude to another kid is something like this: “Kids are rude sometimes. Tell her to stop messing around, or go somewhere else.”
But these weren’t typical circumstances. Lizzy was the girl whose mother I was en route to confront, and this wasn’t the first time she’d singled out my daughter.
My firstborn is, in many ways, just like her father. But in a very few, very important ways, she is just like me, and this is one of them: The more someone pushes her away, the stronger her drive grows to be loved by that person. It’s happened before; first grade was a horror show for her.
Two girls who love/hated each other used my girl as a pawn in their vitriolic game, each taking turns pitting her against the other when all her sweet soul wanted was for everybody to be friends.
This eight-year-old little girl had thought it a good idea to give my daughter commands for when she was allowed to talk to Lizzy. Hand signals. Like a dog.
Now she’s in the second grade, and she’s been coming home and talking about this Lizzy girl for a month or two. At first, the reports were good. Lizzy was very nice. She was fun to play with. My daughter invited her to an awards lunch that she’d earned.
Then, slowly, the conversation turned. My kid began obsessing over their friendship. She would come home upset because Lizzy said she didn’t like her anymore. At recess, Lizzy would come up to her unprovoked and say things like, “You’re annoying. I don’t want to be friends with you anymore.” My little girl would cry and cry.
Sometimes, unpredictably, Lizzy would take it all back. She’d change her mind. Miraculously, she wanted to be friends after all. And while I’d like to think that’s because my daughter is a bucketful of awesome (which she is), I know this behavior. And I suspect that, instead, Lizzy is manipulating my naïve, immature little girl.
This theory was solidified a few days before the baseball game, when my child walked into the door after school, sobbing and saying, “I’ve had it with that Lizzy.” This eight-year-old little girl had thought it a good idea to give my daughter commands for when she was allowed to talk to Lizzy. Hand signals. Like a dog.
I’m a teacher and a mama bear. But I’m also a woman who was bullied, manipulated, and abused when I was my daughter’s age.
I know that I seem strong and confident, but under the steely surface there is a porcelain seven-year-old me, chipped and ready to shatter. My decades-old fear of being hurt bubbled up at the mere thought of speaking to this child’s mother. Irrationally, I feared a blowup — maybe even a physical altercation.
I reminded myself, though, that I would want to know if my kids were behaving in this way, and I would be remiss if I didn’t offer this mom the same respect, regardless of my assumptions about how she’d respond.
Also, this is my kid we’re talking about.
So I walked up the hill and approached Lizzy’s mom. I broke into her conversation, kindly but unapologetically.
I opened, with a hedge, a disclaimer. “My daughter’s really sensitive, but I’d want to know if it were my kid doing these things…” It made me feel more comfortable, but it was unnecessary. I then explained what my child had reported to me, and what had just happened in the dugout.
I braced myself for impact, but to my surprise, I was met instead with kindness and grace. “Thank you so much for telling me,” the mom said. “Let’s work together; how should we solve this?” My shoulders dipped below my ears for the first time all day.
After the game, we all sat down and talked together. Lizzy apologized, and the girls hugged, and I exchanged contact information with Lizzy’s mom.
Later when I asked my daughter if she believed Lizzy’s story that someone had “gotten into her head” and that’s why she’d done those things, she said she did. Because that’s the kind of girl I have. One who, just like me, assumes the best of people even when they’re showing their worst.
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I still think Lizzy is manipulative, and I think it extends to more children than just mine. I still don’t want my daughter to be alone with her. I have already advocated for the two of them to be watched closely at school, and the two girls will be in different classes for third grade.
However, when Lizzy’s mother asked if we wanted to have dinner at the park after the ball game a few days later, I said yes. We laughed and we swapped stories and we shared food, and I made it very clear to Lizzy and to her mother that I am a present force in my child’s life and I’ve got my eye on this relationship.
I will be kind to this little girl because I know that the circumstances in her life have set her up to behave in this way. Who knows, maybe being around my sweet, caring, generous daughter will nurture those qualities in Lizzy as well.
But I will never let her out of my sight.
“Mama?” my daughter called from the back seat as we headed home from the picnic dinner. I had to swallow back a sob before I could respond.
My mind had wandered thirty years backward, and I remembered.
The tears I cried when my “friends” decided at will that they didn’t like me on a given day. The teasing and deprivation that met me, were unexpected, as I sought out nothing but love and acceptance. My parent’s dismissal of my pleas for help. The dark places I went afterward.
I had no one to stand up for me, I realized as I drove, murmuring along to whatever was on the radio. Maybe if I had, things could have been different.
Maybe if my mother had connected with the parents of the girls who treated me so horribly, if she’d advised them that their daughters were causing heartwrenching pain to another human being every single day — or if she’d at least acknowledged my despair and reassured me that I was loved — maybe it would have changed my relationship to these girls. Maybe if I hadn’t felt so unloved at home, I wouldn’t have felt the need to seek out love from those who rejected me in the first place.
No one was there for me. But I will be there for her. I will hold her, soothe her, and validate her pain. I will share what I’ve learned about myself by revisiting my own experiences, and I will reassure her that I will be right by her side, no matter who tries to stand in her way.
Nikki Kay writes fiction, poetry, personal essays about parenting, mental health, and the intersection of the two. Check out her column at Invisible Illness.
This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.